For readers who love to gaze heavenward, the moon and the red planet Mars will put on a show over the weekend.
Visible low in the eastern sky late in the evening, the waning gibbous moon and Mars will hold court. If early morning is a more likely moment for stargazing, the moon and Mars will be high overhead this week, but the additional luminous presence of Venus in the East will add to your viewing pleasure.
Mars will continue to be visible throughout September and October. Continuing to get brighter each evening, by September, Mars will outshine Sirius, the brightest of the stars. By October, Mars will outshine not only all the stars but Jupiter—the second brightest planet—as well.
Mars has been in the news recently for other reasons. On Thursday, July 30, 2020, NASA launched a rocket with the new rover, Perseverance, on board. Perseverance is NASA’s newest addition to the robotic Mars Exploration program.
According to NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine:
"This amazing explorer's journey has already required the very best from all of us to get cit to launch through these challenging times… As a mission, as an agency, and as a country, we will persevere."
With a projected landing date in February, 2021, in the Jezero Crater deemed by many as a “prime scientific hunting ground,” Perseverance still has a long journey ahead—290 million miles approximately! With seven scientific instruments aboard, the mission of Perseverance includes looking for signs of ancient microscopic life and exploring the diverse geology in the crater.
Because Perseverance is a part of the larger Moon to Mars program, testing the MOXIE oxygen generator is also part of its mission. This generator is designed to take carbon dioxide (96% of the Martian atmosphere) and convert it to breathable oxygen. If MOXIE is successful, the possibility of future human exploration of Mars will no longer be the stuff of science fiction.
Ingenuity at work
There is another ingenious piece of technology aboard as well: the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. Attached to the belly of the Perseverance rover, the super lightweight helicopter is a feat of engineering innovation. With no scientific instruments of its own, Ingenuity is purely a “flight test” robot.
Watch this fascinating video:
Originally suggested as the name for the new rover (Perseverance) by Alabama high school student, Vaneeza Rupani, NASA officials decided that the name seemed most appropriate for the helicopter. In her submission, she wrote:
“The ingenuity and brilliance of people working hard to overcome the challenges of interplanetary travel are what allow us all to experience the wonders of space exploration. Ingenuity is what allows people to accomplish amazing things.”
What is so ingenious about flying an aircraft on Mars?
One might legitimately ask, why should it be hard to fly on Mars? According to NASA:
“What makes it hard for a helicopter to fly on Mars? For one thing, Mars' thin atmosphere makes it difficult to achieve enough lift. Because the Mars atmosphere is 99% less dense than Earth's, Ingenuity has to be light, with rotor blades that are much larger and spin much faster than what would be required for a helicopter of Ingenuity's mass on Earth.”
Additional challenges include Ingenuity’s actual deployment from Perseverance, surviving the harsh Martian climate, and autonomously recharging using its solar panel. Due to unavoidable interplanetary communication delays, NASA will have to send commands well in advance as well as relying heavily on pre-programmed flight commands.
Because Ingenuity involves many new technologies, the hopes for a successful mission are high.
“If successful, these technologies could enable other advanced robotic flying vehicles that might be included in future robotic and human missions to Mars. They could offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, provide high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.”
Men on Mars
So perhaps as you gaze up at the Red planet over the next few months, not only will you be dazzled by its brilliance, but by the ingenuity and perseverance of the engineers and scientists who put new technologies to work and collect more information about our silent neighbor, Mars.
Cover Image: The Perseverance rover / NASA/Joel Kowsky